Archive for the ‘Scotland’ Category

PostHeaderIcon The Long Commute

View to end of Caledonian Canal into Beaul;y Firth Ben Wyvis distance smallMy current commute is longer than some, not as long as others.  I don’t relish the 5am starts to get into the city, but the journey is quite lovely, and I suspect, quite unlike most other journeys from suburb to city.

I live on a hill overlooking the Cromarty Firth (the hill to be exact, is the North Sutor, and the Moray Firth runs alongside), 10 miles from the nearest train station, and even further from the bus route.  Although the drive into town takes about the same time as the train, on the train I get to look at the changing scenery rather than someone elses bumper.  It’s true that in the winter the journey is dark, and the train is often delayed or cancelled, and when it does turn up the heating is very often broken, but for nine months of the year commuting is a joy!

I don’t commute to Edinburgh or Glasgow – a four hour jaunt at a ridiculously early time of the morning- but into Inverness, the highland capital.  The rail line, mostly single track, traces the peninsulas from the Cromarty Firth, across the Black Isle, and up through the Beauly Firth into Inverness.  The Kessock bridge, spanning the Beauly and Moray Firths, was only built relatively recently, in 1982, and the Conon Bridge, across the Cromarty Firth in 1969.  The line was active long before both bridges were opened, although if the Beeching Report had been acted upon it would have been closed in 1963, and there would have been no rail services north of Inverness.  Thank goodness for the protestors who put pressure on politicians of the day to keep the line open.

The line follows the east coast, along the Moray Firth for much of the way north, and at times runs very close to the shore.  Along the Firths, from Invergordon to Dingwall and Beauly into Inverness, the carriages feel more like sea-faring vessels, so close does the track run to the water’s edge.  It gives a fantastic view of the sunrises and sunsets across the water, at the relevant times of year and day, as well as spectacular views of wildlife, especially migrant birds, herons, oyster catchers, cormorants, northern divers, and common seals:  the colony at Foulis can often be seen when the tide is right, hauled out on the shore, or banana-shaped, relaxing on partially submerged rocks.  Buzzards are a common sight, and red kites are often seen on the Black-Isle stretch.  In the summer evenings, and autumn mornings, deer – both red and roe- are a common sight along the route, and the ubiquitous sheep are everywhere.  The route also boasts some goats, donkeys, and the iconic red-haired highland cow.

Whatever the weather, the scenery is stunning: Struy Hill, Fyrish, Mount Gerald, Mount Eagle, and the Ben Wyvis range, ever present, brooding over the market town of Dingwall; visible at various points on the journey, and covered in snow for part of the year.

Michael Portillo travelled the route, from Invergordon to John O’Groats, in Series 4 of his Great British Railway Journeys, and my fellow commuters recall the filming.  It may not be classed as the most spectacular rail journey in Scotland -Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, I believe has that honour- but it is certainly up there with the best of them.

I won’t be travelling by train into the city after the end of next month, and although I won’t miss the 5am starts, in many ways I will miss my long commute.  Apart from the scenery and wildlife, there’s the conviviality and banter, often absent from the silent, impersonal commuter trains of the UK’s capital city.  Instead I will have a short drive to the cathedral town of Dornoch to look forward to, and although I’m sure there will still be plenty to see, I’ll need to keep my eyes on the road, and not on the scenery!

Photo Credit D Ruppenthal, all rights reserved.  View to end of the Caledonian Canal and into the Beauly Firth, Ben Wyvis in the distance, taken from the train.

PostHeaderIcon Why I‘m Not Mourning the End of Summer

Woodburner smallI work in a sector where the colder days and dark nights are a cause of dread.  If you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or depression of any sort, the cold gloomy days ahead can seem interminable, and the fact that we’ve had a good summer this year seems to make it worse, by highlighting the contrast.

I’m the last person who would trivialise peoples’ anxiety about winter, especially those who have mental health issues, but I’m one of those people who are lucky enough not to suffer from SAD, and can see the benefits that the cooler days bring. 

For a start, I love the autumn colour: Glen Affric in the autumn is a delight, particularly if you get one of those cold bright days, which we sometimes do.  Who doesn’t like crunching about in autumn leaves and collecting conkers?

Admittedly I don’t like the cold – not one bit- so living in the northern most part of the British mainland may seem like an odd choice, but as Billy Connelly said, ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather only inappropriate clothing’, so as long as I can wrap up and keep warm I’m happy to engage with the colder weather on my own terms!  I love putting on my winter woollies, which my mum knits, and walking on a deserted beach; I actually really like seeing the first snow fall on the mountains, and watching Ben Wyvis, which I can see from my utility room, turn white at the summit.  I even love crunching the white stuff underfoot and building snowmen (well, snow pigs in my case, but the point is the same).  Also, I am in love with my wood burner.  There I’ve said it!  I will be delighted with the new opportunities this season presents to stoke up the fire.  There’s something magical about being toastie-warm in front of a real fire, whilst it’s blowing a gale outside.

There are many other seasonal benefits to be had – the darker night skies provide much better opportunities for stargazing, and if like me, you’re lucky enough to live in a ‘dark sky’ environment you’ll appreciate the clear night skies at this time of year.  The northern lights (Aurora Borealis) are also only really visible in the autumn and winter months, and although I’ve not yet had the privilege of seeing them, the north is one of the best spots in the UK to do so.

Food is always a pet subject of mine, and at this time of year there are plenty of seasonal delights from blackberries and other hedgerow food, to chestnuts, game and stews.  Gone are the summer salads, in is hearty, wholesome, warming grub in extra big portions to give me energy for keeping warm: steaming piles of fluffy creamed potatoes, soups of every kind, stodgy puddings, and back on board are the lovely shellfish too.

I enjoy getting out and about, but the cold short days are also a good excuse to curl up on the sofa, in front of the fire, with a good book, or a good film, and not feel guilty.  I do miss the exercise I get in the summer from gardening, but I can sit inside smug in the knowledge that all the tending has been done and my sprouts are doing their thing in time for Christmas.

I said the ‘C’ word.  I’m aware it’s not something that sets everyone’s heart alight, but I do love Christmas and all the traditions associated with it:  Candlelit carols, wrapping presents, sending cards, visiting friends and family, and all the food sights and smells that go with this time of year –the Christmas cakes, pickles, hams, cheeses, mulled wine, and all the Christmas spices.  And let’s not forget the start of the citrus season too!

There are lots of things to enjoy as we move towards cooler weather, and of course, there’s always the spring to look forward too!  Would we appreciate it as much, do you think if we didn’t have autumn and winter?

 

 

 

PostHeaderIcon Life on the Edge

Beyong Luskentye smallLife on the Edge – it’s the strapline for the Outer Hebrides tourism website, and the title of a new BBC Scotland Series which starts this month (May).  The Outer Hebrides is a chain of Islands that sits only 30 or so miles off the coast of Scotland, but is perched in the Atlantic on the very edge of Europe – next stop Canada.

If you search on line for ‘life on the edge’ it returns pictures of people hanging off cliff edges, and leaping buildings, and there is definitely a sense of exhilaration in going to somewhere as wild and exposed, and remarkably still untouched, as the Outer Hebrides.  Interestingly it is the only place in the UK to make the ‘Wanderlust Magazine’ list top 100 travel destinations.

I was fortunate to spend the best part of a week there, exploring some of the islands in a campervan.  I mentioned ‘Out There Campervans’ in my blog post exploring wilderness Scotland last year (A Week Out There), and this time used one of their smaller, but still well equipped, vans.  The Outer Hebrides is definitely no places for a large motorhome!

It’s difficult to find adjectives to describe the Outer Hebrides that aren’t over-used and hackneyed, but ‘amazing’ and ‘wild’ are two that can’t be avoided!  I didn’t feel that a week was sufficient time to ‘island hop’ and concentrated on the main islands of Lewis and Harris, also tagging on Scalpay and Great Bernera, which are attached to the mainland by road bridge.  Even so, a week wasn’t really enough time to do the place justice.

If you visit, and I would urge you to take the opportunity, the beaches are something that will stick in your mind.  The weather was quite cool at the start of the trip, and the wind blustery, but even so, the rugged, almost deserted beaches were heart-stopping.  When the sun decided to shine it was easy to believe you were in some exotic location, or a film set.  In the end we did get a bit ‘beach blasé’ as there were just so many stunning bays, coves and shorelines to explore! Traigh Lar,  Dhail Beag, Bosta,  Mangersta, Horgabost and Luskentyre are a few of the highlights, but there were plenty more we didn’t get to.

The array of wildlife is another key reason to visit the Outer Hebrides.  Although the weather wasn’t good enough for a boat trip (it wasn’t good enough for the container ship to sail, or the fishermen to go out!) there was still plenty of opportunity to spot wildlife, particularly birds.  Although we weren’t lucky enough to spot golden eagles at the hide on North Harris, we did see one one our way back from Bosta beach, a magnificent creature coasting along the ridge.  One of the joys of having the campervan is that it can be taken to some fairly remote locations and parked up overnight.  We had an interesting encounter with a herd of cattle, and whilst they weren’t strictly speaking, wild animals, it was interesting to see them in a natural setting.  When you have a large bull scratching his head on your wing mirror, you had best be engaged!  We didn’t see otters, or even red deer, but you have a better chance of seeing them here than a lot of places, and there is always next time.

The Hebrides offer a rich cultural history, and for those who enjoy exploring, there is plenty to find out.  We visited the Calanais stones, as this felt mandatory, and their brooding ancient presence was worth the trip.  There was plenty we didn’t see, as we felt that trying to pack too much in would dilute what we did get to.

Like Scotland in general, and the Highlands in particular, the islanders were friendly and chatty.  Most people had the time to spend a few minutes blethering, and the islands seem particularly accommodating, welcoming even, to campers who wish to wild camp.  We only stayed on a campsite on the first evening, and thereafter camped where we landed each day.  There were plenty of safe level spaces, many with stunning views.

I’m a bit of a crafter, and enjoyed seeing some of the local craft work and paintings.  As you can imagine there’s no shortage of artists and photographers prepared to share their take on the stunning vistas, and there are a number of very nice independent art galleries which also double up as cafés.   Hebrides Art is a 5-star visitor attraction, and as well as a stunning gallery of local art, has an excellent collection of island crafts.  We didn’t try the café, but the views of Seilebost from there are jaw-dropping, and the smell of homemade soup and bread was enticing.  I sneaked a peek at the cakes too, and they did look yummy!

The real joy of the Outer Hebrides is of course outside – the space, the peace, the rugged landscape, scoured by the Atlantic Ocean.  Even the Highlands seemed a noisy and busy place by comparison.  This is definitely life on the edge, people shaped by living on the edge, and every bit wonderful because of that.

 

 Outer Hebrides Visitor Website http://www.visitouterhebrides.co.uk/